Is the United States addicted to gasoline?

Kick the Gasoline Habit

Many Americans are making permanent lifestyle changes, like taking public transportation, to cut back on the amount of gasoline they use.
Many Americans are making permanent lifestyle changes, like taking public transportation, to cut back on the amount of gasoline they use.
David McNew/Getty Images

Americans have made several attempts to kick the gasoline habit cold turkey, but every time, their thirst for fuel wins out. The country's gasoline consumption abated during recessions in 1975, 1980 and 1990, only to resume an aggressive climb once the economy improved. However, many experts now believe the most recent decline in consumption -- the largest sustained drop in 16 years -- could be here to stay [source: Campoy].

Due to record high gasoline prices in the summer of 2008, Americans made big changes to cut back their fuel consumption. They drove 9.6 billion miles (15.4 billion kilometers) less in May than compared with the year before, and their gasoline consumption in July 2008 was 3.6 percent lower than last year's level [source: Mouawad].

If high gasoline prices were the only player in this game, those gains would probably follow the trend of past successes and simply rebound. This time, though, the high gas prices were compounded by a weak housing market and an even weaker economy, where prices for all consumer goods were up 4.3 percent from a year before -- a 16-year high. According to the Energy Information Administration, every 1 percent decrease in personal income leads to a 0.5 percent reduction in gasoline consumption [source: Campoy].

The double whammy of high gas prices and a weak consumer market seems to have forced Americans to do more than just scale back their driving. Americans appear to have made changes that will have a lasting impact even if fuel prices drop back down. They've started buying smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and they've traded their houses out in the suburbs for homes more convenient to where they work. The government has even gotten on board to some degree by enforcing more rigorous fuel-efficiency standards and offering subsidies on some hybrid vehicles. In January 2008, sales of large cars were down 26.5 percent from last year, while small-car and crossover vehicle sales were up 6.5 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively [source: Campoy].

Although most Americans would probably agree that coping with high gas prices hasn't been pleasant, perhaps it has at least given the atmosphere somewhat of a reprieve. U.S. transportation accounts for an entire third of its CO2 emissions and produces more of these emissions than any other nation, barring China [source: Greene]. While regular smog alerts and threats of global warming fail to generate much action, $4 per gallon at the pumps seems to do the trick. If the rest of the world has learned anything from watching the United States cope with its ballooning gas prices, it's that to get its stubborn citizens to change, one may have to resort to the old adage of "no pain, no gain."

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